The Biological Impact of the Quintessential Christmas Cookie:
How Warming Your Oven Will Warm Hearts. by Dr. Kara Coe
No matter your ethnic lineage – baking holiday cookies is in your blood. Mankind, from Africa to Antarctica, has been celebrating the winter solstice for eons, marking the change of season and possible first frost with preparation, fermented drinks, and sweet eats that often could not be grown during winter. Back then, cookies were made with drops of grain paste baked on hot stones around a fire. Enter the Persian Empire of the 7th Century that stretched across Eurasia, discovering sugar in South East Asia and combining it with dried fruits in an unleavened sweet bread. By the later centuries of the Middle Ages (8th-14th), Christianity swept present-day Europe and brought with it the winter celebration of Christmas. Only the wealthiest families could afford the rare commodities of lard, exotic spices, dried fruits, and sugar, so Christmas cookies became a special and sought-after gift. But holiday sweets are not reserved for pagans and Christians! History reveals bakers of all religions and nationalities have a special version – such as the 17th Century Jodenkoeken of the Netherlands, the Malawian Mbatata, and the Kahk enjoyed during Eid and Ramadan.
HOW did baking cookies become a world-wide phenomenon? Simple! All humans share the experience of a culture and the physiology of a central nervous system.
Baking together, whether in groups of adults or adults with children, is a social activity that promotes a sense of efficacy, bonding, and happiness. Modern psychologists suggest baking may be used as a form of social interaction, self-care, and/or mindfulness that increases levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Baking also presents itself as an act of altruism, as we often bake for those who are sick, celebrating, or hungry. It is a little-known fact that historically the tradition of leaving cookies for Santa began during the Great Depression as a way for parents to model and encourage generosity and sharing in their children.
While baking, the warm scents of vanilla, fruits, sugar, and spices have an intoxicating affect on the human brain and are scientifically proven to alter mood. Scent is the only sense immediately connected to the human limbic system and it directly affects our emotion (amygdala), memory, and associative learning (hippocampus). Thus, there is a strong neurological basis for why baking makes us happy. Recent studies also show that the scent of baking can increase prosocial behavior and productivity. For example, humans exposed to the smell of fresh-baked cookies helped a stranger more often than those who were not.
Decorating cookies is not only an expression of creativity, but also an exercise of concentration and hand-eye coordination. While creativity is not associated with one particular structure of the brain (it requires a bunch!), its flowing stimulates a burst of dopamine in the hypothalamus, causing us to be happy, rewarded, and continue the behavior. In the short term, creativity decreases stress and increases emotional regulation. Especially beneficial for children, practicing hand-eye coordination also improves social and cognitive skills by building and strengthening synapses in the cerebellum.
The gift of holiday cookies is one of interpersonal investment. By showing you care and sharing your hand-baked treats, you are actually causing a cascade of oxytocin and attachment in the perception center of the brain of your loved one. That is correct. One does not even have to eat or smell cookies to gain benefit from receiving them as a gift. The acts of sharing and caring are a biological predisposition that ensure the survival of our species and can easily be found in other species by watching popular Facebook posts about dogs, cats, goats, pandas, and horses.
From maple to molasses to ginger, the taste of cookies is widely associated with winter holidays and can have a very pleasing affect on the human brain. Ever wonder why Starbucks releases pumpkin-flavored products in August? They are addictive! Upon activation of the sweet taste receptors in the human tongue, gustatory information is sent via the thalamus and ventral pathway to the amygdala and hypothalamus. Then BAM! The pleasure center of the brain is rewarded and the human wants another sip or bite. Tastes are wildly addictive due to their affect on the brain and serve as the foundation of our multi-billion dollar gourmet industry. In addition, holiday cookies have the neurologically soothing effects of providing nourishment and staving hunger.
Last, but not least, are the nostalgic memories we each associate with the smell, taste, and presentation of holiday cookies and desserts. As mentioned before, smell is directly linked to the hippocampus – the memory center of the brain – and can magically transport you to times associated with the scent. In addition, similar tastes can evoke positive feelings, for example, a snickerdoodle that tastes ‘just like the ones grandma used to bake.’ If you do not have any warm memories of the holidays, now is your chance to bake some! So don’t skip the calories this holiday season, take some time to warm hearts with your oven.